22 February, 2016Issue 30.2Poetry

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To Shoot Your Own Ghost

Christopher Spaide

Don Paterson 40 Sonnets cover

40 Sonnets
Don Paterson
Faber and Faber, 2015
56 pages
ISBN 978-0571310890







The title is both a dare and a feint. 40 Sonnets, Don Paterson’s fifth collection of original poems (and his second to win the Costa Poetry Award) invites you to classify it as a self-imposed exercise, a fetishizing of a form, or the squarer descendant of titles like Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair or John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. It is all the above, as well as a poet’s campaign against himself, an experiment in content with form as control, and a rebuttal to every piety in form’s favour. The least one could say about the title is that it is true advertising, more or less, and by calling attention to the sonnet, it singles out the least remarkable feature of a brilliant book.

Forty sonnets is more than most people, and many poets, write in lifetimes, but Paterson, reintroducing Shakespeare’s sonnets in 2010, makes them sound simple enough: ‘Sonnets express a characteristic shape of human thought, and are, after a bit of practice, very easy to write. Badly.’ Speaking for himself in 2015, Paterson made an offhanded disavowal that’s also a revealing preface to his own sonnets: ‘I’m not a ‘lover of the sonnet form’, it’s just that for me it’s the most invisible form, the one I think about least.’ This likely sounds ludicrous coming from a poet who publishes sonnets in every collection, whose chief influences (Shakespeare, Frost, Rilke, Heaney, Muldoon) all redirected the course of the sonnet, and whose bibliography includes a version of Rilke’s 55 Sonnets to Orpheus, an anthology of 101 Sonnets, and a diary-like commentary on each of Shakespeare’s 154. But if you read Paterson through the sonnet’s golden-rectangular frame, his claim sounds entirely sincere: the sonnet’s instrumentation comes instinctively to Paterson, amplifying rather than dampening his expression, and suiting his congenitally ambivalent temperament. Even when his poems don’t total fourteen lines, Paterson seems to write stretched-apart or squeezed-shut sonnets, punctuated with key changes and counterpoints, wrenched around by sharp voltas and unanticipated closes. You can hear a sonnet’s movements, for instance, in the title poem of Paterson’s grieving, unalleviated Rain (2010): its two sentences structure thought like a sonnet’s octave and sestet, and its freestanding last line, like Shakespeare’s least conclusive conclusions, curtly undermines everything preceding it: ‘and none of this, none of this matters.’

The sonnet—the fourteen-line formula, its argumentative architecture, its tradition of experimentation—is so vital to Paterson’s poetics, and Paterson has become so fluent in the form; it’s easy to forget that 40 Sonnets was written under any formal restrictions. It reads like a Paterson collection, and revives all his predominant subjects: work, poetry, romantic love and its unromantic motivations, real or imagined children, appreciations of neighbouring arts and of mourned artists. His most abiding project, since 2003’s Landing Light, has been an unsparing revaluation of the world as seen through Paterson’s ‘scientific materialism’. Throughout Paterson’s work, religion is debunked by a merciless sense of scepticism; values and language are recognized as human impositions; and anything with the least scent of the metaphysical is snuffed out or reinterpreted in terms of matter and physical laws—no exceptions, no miracles, allowed.

Paterson has a unique genius for fashioning—from premises that deny so much, so unequivocally—a poetry that retains the lyric’s chromatic scale of tones and postures, its tonic note a mystified wonder that we could be here, alive, at all. That genius spurs 40 Sonnets’s earliest, most identifiably Patersonian poems. The opener ‘Here’ starts with a small-talk throwaway—‘I must quit sleeping in the afternoon’—only to elaborate a speaker who cannot feel at home in this life or any other, estranged from his mother, his voice, even his own biological machinery:

I do it for my heart, but all too soon
my heart has called it off. It does not love me.
If it downed tools, there’d soon be nothing of me.
Its hammer-beat says you are, not I am.
It prints me off here like a telegram.
What do I say?

Once you become convinced that your heart is a carbon-based machine, your personal piston or printer, where do you locate an I, a self that says I am? (And what, Paterson punningly wonders, keeps the beat of all these iambs?) In the double-edged ‘Wave’, a multiply meaningful persona (a tidal wave, a wave of energy, an envoy of climate change) makes a seven-line case for nature’s secular grace, and a seven-line reminder of nature’s utter unconcern for us. In Paterson’s valueless materialism, a wave is both ‘a frictionless / and by then almost wholly’ (and almost holy) ‘abstract matter / with nothing in my head beyond the bliss / of my own breaking’, and an indifferent dynamo of destruction: ‘I hit the beach and swept away the town.’ If nature’s not for you, in the nearby ‘House’ Paterson finds a misanthropic messiah in beleaguered pill-popping Dr Gregory House, not the god we were instructed to worship but ‘the god we know – / broken, drunk, in agony, at bay, / yet undistracted from the mystery / of our own suffering’. Like us, Dr House is incarnated in a mortal form, and hopeful for comic resolution (‘Stop the chemo! He just needs to fart!‘); like us, he finds salvation only in his “wild-eyed” scrutiny of his own dependencies. ‘O let that thousand-yard-and-one-inch stare / see through us too’, Paterson’s closing couplet pleads, ‘for we don’t have a prayer.’

The deeper you get into 40 Sonnets, the more subjects and styles Paterson juggles, and the more ambivalent, even self-contradictory, the collection becomes. Even the three sonnets above constitute a three-body problem: unable to decide whether the best vessel for his materialism is a self-less lyric poem, a dramatic monologue, or versified TV criticism, Paterson writes all three and makes us sort out the differences. His elegies are just as various: reading the eulogy ‘Funeral Prayer’, you might hear Paterson’s level-toned assurance that he can find words suitable for death, that words are indeed fit figures for human lives: ‘of all the words / we knew, his name was the most dear. / We give thanks he was spoken here.’ But flip ahead several pages and read ‘The Foot’, a version of Frost’s ‘”Out, Out—”’ updated for today’s conflicts and clichés. When an Israeli shelling severs the foot of a Palestinian boy ‘playing football on the beach’, Paterson confesses his art’s inadequacy: ‘I have no words so here are the no words’. He can only voice, only imagine, the violence by copying-and-pasting stock phrases, as the boy

‘smiles as he recalls some happier time’
but ‘seeing the doctor shake his head’ grips the foot
with both hands and ‘starts to howl like an animal’
as ‘the full horror of the situation dawns on him’

Elsewhere in 40 Sonnets, Paterson finds entire languages for political rage. He scripts infernal nightmares for an oblivious Tony Blair, here nicknamed ‘The Big Listener’:

You lose no sleep but wake within a dream.
Your favourite: that old divided dark,
the white square at your neck; your good ear bent
towards the long sighs of your penitent….
They are your dead.

And he pens Popean hate mail ‘To Dundee City Council’ for fencing off ‘a fine baronial stair’ and adding twenty minutes to his commute:

Know at least I leave here with my tail
between my legs again, and setting sail
for that fine country called the fuck away.
Farewell! Good luck with the V&A.

Paterson has described the Sonnets to Orpheus as ‘a kind of meta-essay on the possibilities of the sonnet form’. It is tempting to adhere this same description to 40 Sonnets, with its gamut of tones and subjects, its compulsion to write and rewrite on the same subjects from opposing angles. I wish, though, that Paterson had more often, and more irreverently, varied his standard sonnet recipe (more Italian than English, loose-but-not-too-loose pentameters, an intricate syntax threaded through full or softly slant rhymes). Anytime 40 Sonnets piles on or pares back formal constraints, the results stand out. Everything the unrhymed sonnet meant for Robert Lowell in the 1970s—a pressurized container where the personal reacts with the mythic; a therapy session to talk through, if not reconcile, unconnected autobiographical moments—re-emerges in Paterson’s unrhymed love poem ‘Sentinel’: having lost his partner in Kings Cross’s rush-hour commotion, Paterson finally finds her ‘on the edge, with all in view, / all in hand, tall as a mast of white pine / to which I had to lash myself or drown.’ ‘On Woodman’s Photography’, a tribute to American photographer Francesca Woodman, traces the borders between absence and presence in clicked-shut epigrams:

To shoot your own ghost, gentlemen – a primer:
locked room; open shutter; fucked self-timer

‘The lens is no one looking back.’ No doubt,
but watch me watch me stare the bastard out

Even better is the plumb-line sonnet ‘At the Perty’, a Scots version of an untitled tanka by the exclamatory Japanese poet Takuboku Ishikawa. (Tanka, a classic form in Japanese poetry, is almost always rendered in English as five unrhymed lines with varying syllable counts—five, seven, five, seven, seven. This should sound inadmissible in a book of sonnets, unless you’re Don Paterson.) Ishikawa’s original registers quick impressions and a quiet lament, as the poet jokingly carries his mother on his back, takes three steps, and weeps at her lightness. Paterson’s version is a Beckett one-act in fourteen words, all buffoonish movement and yelped dialogue:



left –
richt –
left –



’s that

(clapped – attached; stapped – stopped; grat – sobbed; licht – light)

Others (unforgettably George Starbuck, in his ‘Space-Saver Sonnets’) have written properly-rhyming one-syllable-per-line sonnets, but no one before Paterson has made the form this tragic, or figured its slightness on the page as a frail, failing life.

Especially in its outliers, 40 Sonnets becomes a book both of sonnets and about sonnets, which variously analogizes the sonnet with a séance, a catechism, a short film, a play of light, a letter to the dead, a ‘damn lift’ stuck in a power cut, even a joyless conversation with a telemarketer. Like Paterson’s past collections, it also includes a range of translations, which assert, to degrees of success, that sonnets do “express a characteristic shape of human thought”. (‘At the Perty’ convinces me, but it’s not apparent why Yeats’s twelve-line ‘The Scholars’ should drag out into Paterson’s sonnet-sized imitation ‘A Scholar’, or what an eight-line Du Fu poem gains by being dismantled and rebuilt as seven couplets, in Paterson’s ‘For a Drowned Poet’. The book’s most memorable anomaly—‘The Version’, a three-page prose ‘anti-sonnet’, after the Chilean Nicanor Parra—proves that human thought, like a gas, fills the shape of its container.)

But unless you have particular investments in the sonnet’s history and potential, chances are you come to 40 Sonnets not for the forty sonnets but for Paterson: to share his idiosyncratic vantage on global literature, to tune back to a faultless formalist who couldn’t esteem form any less. If this means that Paterson’s new book doesn’t quite distinguish itself—and that Rain remains his most various and daring work—it also means that we have another chance to witness this poet’s established gift for translating moments into monuments, and for leaving us as giddy as the riders of ‘The Roundabout’, in that poem’s (and the book’s) final lines:

Our hands still burning
we lay and looked up at a sky so clear
there was nothing in the world to prove our turning
but our light heads, and the wind’s lung.


Christopher Spaide is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Harvard University.